Best or Favorite: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” vs. “John Wick”
“Best or Favorite” is an attempt to explain why the “Best” films, those films that are technical marvels, aren’t always our favorite films, and why our favorite movies might not live up to the critiques of others.
Two years ago, Vertigo became the number one film of all time according to the Sight & Sound Poll. 191 out of 846 critics, programmers, academics and distributors voted that Vertigo (Flickchart global ranking #45) was the greatest film of all time. Yet how many film lovers would have it as their number one? Rarely do the two – best and favorite – meet. Great craft doesn’t always make a favorite. The elements that make up the “best” films are: directors who have a distinct vision working from a exact script with actors that can elevate the words into one powerful work of art; that’s vital, challenging, and goes beyond just an hour and a half escape. In other words, something like Vertigo.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Flickchart global ranking: #430) finds Captain America working closely with Nick Fury as a S.H.E.I.L.D. operative. He’s also trying to find his place in the modern world while navigating a completely different type of war than he’s used to; one were his enemies aren’t that easy to identify. When an assassin appears, hunting S.H.E.I.L.D. members, Cap must team up once again with Black Widow as well as new hero Falcon to find out who is The Winter Soldier, stop him, and discover who he’s really working for.
It’s the third appearance of Captain America, and the eighth film of a highly successful franchise. Under the Russo Brother’s direction, Captain America: The Winter Soldier gives the Marvel Cinematic Universe a shot of vitality when it needed it. Following the pretty standard and similar story arcs of Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a genre picture in the form of a 70s spy film, and it really works in a world where Captain America exists. Chris Evans has taken what could be a zero personality boy scout and added layers of nuance to make Captain America one of the most interesting Marvel heroes we have on-screen. Scarlett Johansson, who had a highlight year in 2014, injects pathos into her role as Black Widow, and we finally understand what’s been going on inside that character since Iron Man 2. Robert Redford is a great choice for the role as a government official who oversees S.H.I.E.L.D. His comfort and command in the role helps the world of the film seem plausible and relatable.
Writer Christopher Markus adds another element of authenticity to Captain America: The Winter Soldier by writing a story of a hero – the symbol for the American way – who is distrusting of his own government. This story couldn’t be more topical, when in the same year a documentary (Citizenfour) about a former NSA agent turned whistleblower exposes our government’s “spying” activities and gets nominated for an Oscar. Like the comic books Captain America originates from, The Winter Soldier is commenting on what’s currently going on in our world. This relevance heightens Captain America: The Winter Soldier to become more than just an action movie.
The action sequences in The Winter Soldier are also some of the best of its year and the entire Avengers franchise. The best action sequence of the movie is when Captain America gets on an elevator, and after about three stops is surrounded by S.H.E.I.L.D agents whose mission is to incapacitate and capture him. Captain America has to survive long enough to make it to his floor. Shrinking an action scene down to this intimate and confined space makes it more personal for Captain America, and for the audience. All the elements that make a well-crafted movie are there: the script, direction, and acting are some of the best of 2014. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is possibly the best action movie of 2014.
John Wick (Flickchart global ranking: #2288) has ACTION! Fantastic action. Well-choreographed action. Keanu Reeves action. On the surface, that’s all John Wick claims to be; another action movie with an older action star and an incredibly high and bloody body count in the vein of most Jason Statham movies. John Wick is most certainly an action movie first and foremost, but it also digs a little deeper and reveals a lot of heart.
John Wick is a retired hit man whose wife has recently died from cancer and has left him a puppy to love. Not long after, a group of baddies breaks into his house to steal his 1969 Mustang and in the process beat him to a pulp and kill his puppy. This all happens within the first ten minutes of the movie then it’s revenge time. John blasts dozens of faceless henchmen as he pursues revenge on Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), who also happens to be the son of a crime boss John used to work for.
John Wick’s script can not compete with Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s. It consists mostly of stereotypes and clichés. An Eastern European villain who’s disappointed with his out of control son; see Eastern Promises. The protagonist’s pet gets killed; see I Am Legend. In another stereotypical scene, where the crime boss is beating his son for being a general screw-up, it’s revealed that John’s nickname, when he was an assassin, was “The Boogeyman”. That nickname has been used so many times to describe so many characters throughout film, it’s laughable. The dialogue is full of this kind of corniness throughout. Just about every other character, that John hasn’t killed, asks him if he’s back in the assassin game – and they all do this at very inopportune times as if they have to say it according to a script – to which his response is:
“People keep asking if I’m back… Yeah. I’m thinking I’m back.”
Keanu delivers this cheeseball line with total seriousness, and that’s where that heart comes in; his commitment to that character and the world he lives in – and what a world it is! In John Wick’s world, there is one hotel in the city where all the assassins stay when they’re in town. Regardless if they’re enemies or just going after the same contract, they stay at the same hotel. The hotel has set up rules – check your weapons at the door, no questions – so all-out war doesn’t happen and all these ruthless killers abide by these rules – or do they? There are several of these types of ridiculous story elements in John Wick, and everyone involved commits to them, totally. Directors, actors, stunt men and women, even the marketing team that decided to use the line above as the ending for John Wick’s trailer have fully embraced all of John Wick. The actors take these words and the story they belong to seriously. Michael Nyqvist plays that cliché of a villain and commits fully to calling John Wick “The Boogeyman.” Instead of laughter, Nyqvist’s crime boss commands respect through his earnest delivery.
Directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have love for this story. In their relentless action movie, they decide to start the action off with an “action scene” that’s not really an action scene at all. John takes his Mustang on an unused runway and acts out a rather mundane stunt-driving session. This scene should be a stereotypical action movie scene that shows how awesome John Wick really is, complete with loud music and really impressive, probably physically impossible, car stunts; see any Michael Bay movie. Instead, John’s doing regular j-turns past heavy construction equipment. He might be just blowing off steam, but he might also be contemplating self-destruction. The score by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard gets quiet instead of loud during the scene, adding an extra layer of normalcy. Without words, without much ceremony, directors Stahelski and Leitch reveal John as a middle-aged man who still longs for the thrills of his killer-for-hire days. Keanu gets a dissatisfied look when he doesn’t crash into an earth mover, revealing that this type of excitement and action no longer satisfy him anymore. He has recently lost his excitement. He’s lost his wife.
That one scene is the heart of John Wick. John Wick with its corny script, generic characters, and movie cliches, it still shines through as a fun and rewarding piece of art. It may be “low brow” art, but art none the less. The people that made this thrilling action movie take time to show John’s pain – not in a cheesy, expected way, but with a short, simple, and original scene. The cast and crew of John Wick loved making this movie, and that love comes through louder than the spectacular action of John Wick.
Action is the only film element of John Wick that can compete with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Like the best action in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, John Wick’s action is small in scale. The action in John Wick, which mostly consists of John going one-on-one, or one-on-five, is well choreographed so that the camera can step back and show the fights clearly. It doesn’t pull in close and go handheld like so many modern action movies where the fights end up confusing. It gives a real weight to those fight scenes. In one fight, in particular, John knocks a henchman back into a pillar, pulls the trigger, but he’s run out of bullets. He has to reload. The half-frustration, half-worried look on Keanu’s face during that moment, coupled with the race between reloading his gun and the thug regaining his footing, is exhilarating.
Unfortunately for John Wick, action isn’t the only requirement to make a film “The Best” action movie of 2014. It takes all the well-crafted elements that make up Captain America: The Winter Soldier to earn that title. Unfortunately for Captain America: The Winter Soldier “technically the best,” doesn’t cut it when John Wick kills everyone to avenge a really cute puppy his dead wife gave him.